Zapatistas on the March

Zapatistas on the March


Mexico City

Many compared it to marching through a dream. After seven years under siege by 70,000 Mexican Army troops in the jungles and highlands of Chiapas, the Zapatista National Liberation Army (EZLN) sent twenty-four delegates, including its pipe-smoking writer-spokesman Subcomandante Marcos, on a triumphant two-week motorcade that landed in Mexico City on March 11.

“I don’t believe that in any place, in any space in this world–and I have the memory of my own revolution twenty-six years ago–I don’t remember a more moving moment than I lived yesterday,” declared the septuagenarian Portuguese Nobel Prize-winning author José Saramago the next morning.

The US press coverage of the march, limited though it was, hinted at such an apotheosis: the cheering multitudes that greeted the Zapatistas from the roadsides and at mass rallies in twelve states along the route, the flowery words of peace and civil rights coming to Mexico’s mythical newfound democracy. But for the Zapatistas and Mexico’s indigenous movement, the struggle now turns into a battle to codify the movement’s progress into law.

The caravan came to demand constitutional recognition for Mexico’s 10 million indigenous citizens, subjected to generations of repression, poverty, racism and exploitation of their lands and labor. As Mexico’s President Vicente Fox passed his hundredth day in office, he reiterated calls to the Zapatistas to negotiate a peace. Not until the government fulfills the promises it has already made, answered the rebels: release of Zapatista political prisoners, closure of seven of the 259 military bases in Chiapas, and congressional passage of the law that would ratify the 1996 San Andrés peace agreements signed by the government [see Jerry W. Sanders, “Two Mexicos and Fox’s Quandary,” February 26].

The geographical advance was accompanied by a steady rise in the popularity of Marcos and the Zapatistas in opinion polls, an average gain of two percentage points per day, with over 50 percent in support. The implementation of the San Andrés Accords is now the sticking point. Marcos and the Zapatistas, with more than 1,000 delegates from the Indigenous National Congress, encamped at the base of Mexico City’s Cuicuilco pyramid–a circular, 370-foot-diameter stone monument that has survived at least 2,600 years of lava flows, earthquakes and urban sprawl.

Underscoring their credo, “We will not sign a false peace,” the Zapatistas caused a fierce uproar when, as the caravan was launched from San Cristóbal, Chiapas, they named architect Fernando Yáñez Muñoz as their representative to the federal Congress. Mexican police agencies have long claimed that Yáñez is Comandante Germán, the feared national guerrilla leader of the 1970s and ’80s who, they say, helped found the Zapatista army in the jungle in 1983, a charge that Yáñez has denied. The Zapatistas have also, for the first time, called upon other guerrilla movements to protect their journey and remain alert, implying that if the state doesn’t keep its word, an armed guerrilla response could explode nationwide.

María Luisa Tomasini, 78, a Chiapas native designated by Marcos as the “grandmother of all the Zapatistas,” analyzed his call to the other insurgent groupsas she was returning from the March 7 Zapatista rally in Iguala, Guerrero, a state with at least sixteen armed clandestine guerrilla organizations. “Clearly,” she said, “it was a threat to the government that it had better comply.”

The powerful sectors that have always gotten their way in Mexico–bankers, chambers of commerce chiefs, right-wing clergy, the TV networks and key legislators–are working furiously to sabotage the road to a genuine peace. Fox’s party, the PAN, teamed up with the former ruling party, the PRI, against the left-wing PRD party to propose that the Zapatistas meet with twenty congressional leaders instead of the entire Congress. Marcos, noting that the indigenous of Mexico have always been hidden “in the kitchen, on the back porch,” rejected the offer, arguing that the Zapatistas and the Indigenous National Congress deserve to address the whole Congress. Hard-liners continue to seek any roadblock to passage of the full indigenous rights bill with hysterical claims that autonomy would fracture the nation, and they vow radical surgery to the initiative.

On March 19 the Zapatistas announced they will return to the jungle, citing the “close minded” attitude of “cavemen politicians,” saying, “Nothing will be able to stop the popular mobilization” that stems from the Congress’s failure to act. “We will return with everyone who we are.” Immediately, thirteen national peasant-farmer groups pledged nationwide marches, students plotted direct action and five major indigenous groups in Oaxaca vowed to close the Pan American Highway until Congress passes the accords. Congressional leaders begged the Zapatistas to stay, Fox urged the Congress to meet with the rebels and the drama now moves in unpredictable directions.

The guiding principle of the San Andrés Accords is autonomy. The word has galvanized many beyond Mexico’s indigenous populations. The battered Mexican left–peasant farmers, urban workers and especially the nation’s youth–view themselves, too, under the banner of autonomy. Indeed, the popularity of the Zapatista struggle around the world derives at least in part from the coherent language of opposition to globalized and savage capitalism that they have constructed. French sociologist Alain Torraine, who accompanied the caravan, praised the Zapatistas during a March 12 discussion with Marcos and the comandantes in Mexico City, marveling, “The entire world, and we are speaking of the left, is looking for a new language.” Comandante David, a Tzotzil delegate who was a chief negotiator and architect of the San Andrés Accords, acknowledges that the demand for autonomy goes far beyond indigenous rights. “We are going to explain directly to the indigenous and nonindigenous brothers of the country that indigenous rights are for the good of all the peoples,” he said while preparing to leave on the caravan.

Autonomy–what might be called “home rule” in other parts of the world–includes local control of land use, a sore point for big business in Mexico, its eyes on natural resources.

Beyond Mexico, US investors and corporate interests, with expectations that Fox will be the most effective deliveryman yet of Mexican resources under NAFTA, are stoking the subterfuge. Former US Ambassador to Mexico James Jones, now a railroad baron and rainmaker for the Manat, Phelps and Phillips law and lobbying firm in Washington, is on the board of directors of TV Azteca, the most notorious manipulator of public opinion among all the Mexican media. TV Azteca joined the other broadcasting giant, Televisa, to present a March 3 Concert for Peace live from Aztec Stadium, featuring a laser light show, a Woodstock-style logo and the usual condescension toward “our indigenous brothers.” The prepackaged video aired with the concert didn’t mention autonomy, or indigenous political prisoners, or 500 years of conquest–certainly not justice in connection with the 1997 massacre of unarmed indigenous peasants at Acteal. The only proposed solution was to send aid to the poor, barefoot indigenous communities, an approach known in Mexican politics as “clientism.” Many analysts saw Fox’s fingerprints on the TV peace show, as both stations rely on state permission to broadcast in Mexico. Indeed, one of the demands of the San Andrés Accords is the right of indigenous peoples to break that control by forming their own media, including the use of radio and television frequencies.

The question of indigenous autonomy also has consequences for the US-imposed “war on drugs.” The San Andrés Accords would restore indigenous rights to the use of currently illicit sacred plants and codify the pre-eminence of ancient forms of community justice. Luciano, a spokesman for the Zapatista community of Polho, explained to me in 1998 how the autonomous system works without constructing a single prison cell: “If a young man grows marijuana, he goes before a municipal judge to be disciplined and oriented so that he won’t ever do it again. If the youth does it again, there is no response whatsoever: He cannot be pardoned a second time. He would then be expelled from the community.”

That the Zapatista communities have had far more success in driving out the narcotraffickers and preventing drug and alcohol abuse than any other region of the Americas is of little concern to the big talkers of law and order. Opponents charge that autonomy in matters of criminal justice would “balkanize” the country and subvert the “rule of law.”

Indigenous and social movements across Latin America–in Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, Peru, Panama, Brazil and other nations–had representatives quietly observing the caravan. In spite of the powers stacked against them, the Zapatistas, newly strengthened, their national support deepened, have many cards yet to play in forcing legislative victory. In the latest of the ironies under NAFTA, autonomy may thus, and soon, become Mexico’s leading export product.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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